The dark side of the principalship: parent and student aggression

Year: 2021

Author: Blackmore, Jill, Arnold, Ben, Horwood, Marcus, Rahimi, Mark

Type of paper: Individual Paper

Recent media and government attention has focused on principal-directed violence by students, parents and teachers. Principal stress, particularly in public schools, is not new—with a body of research identifying long hours, administrative overload, media attention, multiple accountabilities, lack of time and resources as having impact on their health and wellbeing (Thomson, Blackmore et al 2006). But little research has been undertaken on the dark side of leadership – principals experiencing various forms of aggression, including threats of violence and physical violence by parents and students (Thomson 2009).This study derives from ten years of data from the Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing survey- an annual survey of principals and school leaders in Australia. The sample includes a pool of more than 23000 observations, collected through form principals and deputy, associate and assistant principals through a comprehensive survey instrument. The multi-dimensional instrument and the ample amount of data allow for a comprehensive analysis of occupational health and wellbeing, as a function of multiple demographic features.We draw on this data to focus on one aspect of health and wellbeing that has been largely overlooked in the education research literature: trends in aggressive and violent behaviour towards school leaders. The survey data indicates a number of patterns which cannot be ignored – the rise in aggressive behaviour towards principals, more so in government schools than Catholic systemic or private schools; the link between rising aggressive behaviour and the geographical location of the school; and finally, evidence that women principals experience higher levels of bullying and physical violence than their male counterparts. In this paper, we provide both a national and state-level analysis of these trends over the last ten years.Drawing on social justice theories such as Nancy Fraser’s (2013) notion of economic injustice due to maldistribution of resources and feminist sociology of systemic gender-based violence (Walby et al 2014), we argue first, that the capacity for schools to address parent and student aggression is limited without recognition of the societal and systemwide effects of growing social and economic inequality and the lack of public policy interventions to address gender violence in communities.  Second, the lack of appropriate funding of the most needy schools to provide safer built environments, to undertake whole of school professional development and work with interagency networks to support principals and teachers who experience everyday aggression of students and parents.  This study is important for policy makers and education bureaucrats as well as principals.  Perceptions of principal health and wellbeing are major disincentives with regard to attracting and retaining principals and a major issue in workforce planning.